No matter what anyone says, 34 years does not seem like yesterday. Or last week, or last month, or last year. But it certainly does not seem like some 11,411 days have passed since little Steve Cauthen piloted Affirmed to become racing’s 11th and most recent Triple Crown champion.
Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.
Saturday, Cauthen was at Belmont Park to sign autographs alongside Alydar’s jockey, Jorge Velasquez. Despite the gray hair and the facial lines one might expect from a 52-year-old man, Cauthen did not seem that much different from the bird-beaked, solemn youngster who took the racing world by storm all those years ago.
He was just 17 years old when he first climbed aboard Affirmed one August morning at Saratoga Race Course. He had picked up the mount on the 2-year-old chestnut colt for the upcoming Grade 2 Sanford after Laffit Pincay, Jr. decided not to come in from California and Angel Cordero, Jr. opted to ride another horse. Before he rode Affirmed, Cauthen worked him once over the Oklahoma training track.
He wasn’t impressed.
“He was quite lazy,” recalled Cauthen. “He won the race easily enough, even though he hung a bit on the turn, and I thought he was a nice little horse. It wasn’t really until his next race, the [Grade 1 Hopeful] when he ran against Alydar that I realized that he was special, a really good horse.”
If Cauthen was fortunate to have landed on Affirmed, Affirmed was equally fortunate to have landed Cauthen. The baby-faced rider had captivated the nation with his youthful innocence as he rode a record 487 winners of more than $6 million in 1977 – breaking Cordero’s previous record by more than 30 percent – and by the spring of 1978, he was horse racing’s equivalent of a rock star. Already Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, Cauthen became a spokesman for American Express, cut an album, and was the subject of a best-selling biography entitled “The Kid.”
Among other things, he appeared in a Wheaties commercial after landing on the cereal box cover. If I recall correctly, the ad had him sitting on a horse, singing something like “Before I put the stirrups on my feeties, I get the eaties for my Wheaties.” (I am not making this up.)
Through it all, Cauthen remained as bland and impervious as a freshly laid egg to the hoopla. The night before the Derby, he slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of a hotel room crowded with relatives. Introduced on the Churchill Downs backstretch to sports analyst Jimmy “the Greek” Synder, Cauthen solemnly shook the oddsmaker’s hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Greek.” Absolutely nothing fazed him.
“He must have come from Mars, maybe on a flying sausage,” marveled Affirmed’s trainer, Laz Barrera.
It may have been Cauthen’s composure, more than anything else, that ultimately made the difference in the Belmont. With Velasquez and Alydar pasted to Affirmed’s right flank through the stretch, Cauthen never lost his cool as he was forced to switch to a left-handed whip for the first time – and many believe that gave Affirmed the final encouragement to hit the wire a head in front.
Since then, every time a horse heads into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown, Cauthen is asked if he thinks he can add the “Test of the Champion” to his victories in the Derby and Preakness. He’s been wrong more times than not, but this year, Cauthen really thinks it can happen, partly because he sees the same kind of fighting spirit in I’ll Have Another as he did in Affirmed, and partly because of his 25-year-old jockey, Mario Gutierrez, whom Cauthen calls “the kid.”
“He couldn’t have ridden the horse any better than he did in the Derby and the Preakness,” he said of Gutierrez. “He had him in a perfect spot both times. He was patient, didn’t get flustered, and made his move without a lot of fuss.”
Just like Cauthen himself.
Without a ton of distance in his pedigree, I don’t know how many people are going to support Prime Cut, who was third in the Peter Pan here on May 14, in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. He’s been a consistent sort, no worse than third in six starts since last December, and last year Drosselmeyer used his second-place finish in the Peter Pan as a springboard to win the Belmont. Another similarity is that like Drosselmeyer, the 16.1 hands-tall Prime Cut looks absolutely gorgeous in the days leading up to the race. But what I like most about the Bernstein colt is his personality. Assistant trainer Ricky Giannini calls him a big, friendly giant, and if you watch this video, you’ll see why.
If you carefully study the attributes of the nation’s top trainers, you will find that, despite their differences, they have a number of things in common, namely a deep love of horses, a fiercely competitive nature, a keen eye for talent, an affinity for long hours and hard work, excellent people skills, nerves of steel … and a good cell phone plan. Watch as trainer Dale Romans valiantly powers through a Q&A with the media this morning despite incessant interruptions on his cell phone.
Because of our strict policy against Manimals (not to mention our inherent good taste), Kegasus will not be appearing in any official capacity at Belmont Park in the near future. However, in an exclusive interview obtained by this blog in the Pimlico infield prior to the Preakness, the half-man, half-horse revealed that he will indeed be attending the Belmont Stakes -- in spirit.